The woodblock printing technique was developed by the Chinese and has a long tradition. They used wood blocks for stamping patterns on textiles and for illustrating books. Woodcuts appeared in Europe at the beginning of the fifteenth century, when they were used to make religious pictures for distribution to pilgrims. After the invention of the printing press, woodcuts, being inked in the same way as type, lent themselves to book illustration. Bavarian printer Albrecht Pfister may have been the first to print illustrated books in the 1460s. Herbals were particularly popular. The word ‘herbal’ is derived from the mediaeval Latin liber herbalis or ‘book of herbs’. Much of the information found in herbals arose out of traditional medicine that predated the invention of printing. They were initially produced as illustrated manuscripts and ‘published’ through repeated copying by hand. In doing so, the copyist would often translate, expand, or adapt the content. Konrad of Megenberg’s Buch der Natur (with woodcut illustrations) was the first printed herbal. Metal-engraved plates were first used during the later decades of the sixteenth century. As woodcuts and metal engravings could be reproduced indefinitely they were traded among printers and used time and again. The market was vast. Most households made sure that Bible and herbal were at hand at all times in order to look after the mental and physical health of the family.
In sixteenth century France, woodcuts were used to illustrate book of hours which served as a devotional work containing various prayers and meditations appropriate to seasons, months, days of the week, and hours of the day. There was a decline in woodcutting with the increasing versatility and popularity of line engraving on metal and by the eighteenth century woodcuts were almost obsolete. Horace Walpole dismissed wood engravings as ‘slovenly stamps’. It was Thomas Bewick who pioneered in the revival of the traditional technique. Born in 1753 into a family of poor Northumberland tenant farmers, he was a rough young man who hated school, but loved drawing and nature. As an adult, Bewick rejected copper for the ‘plebeian craft’ of wood engraving. He has been called the ‘father of modern wood engraving’. His art may be rooted in the valley of the Tyne, but the impact of his work is universal.
On 1 October 1767, Bewick was apprenticed to Ralph Beilby of Newcastle upon Tyne. Leaving the countryside was painful to him, but Beilby was a good master. His business was almost solely concerned with the engraving of metal. However, in 1768, mathematician Charles Hutton commissioned Beilby to cut the geometrical figures on wood for his Treatise on Mensuration. Since the latter had little liking for the medium, he left the job to Bewick. The young man accomplished the job so well that further commissions for engraving on wood started to come in from local printers and tradesmen. A series of forty-eight small cuts for A New Lottery Book of Birds and Beasts for Children, printed in 1771 by Thomas Saint for William Charnley of Newcastle, gave first proof of Bewick’s talent in the drawing of animals.
Having finished his apprenticeship, Bewick set off on a walking tour through Cumberland and from there further north towards Scotland (a journey of more than 300 miles) before sailing home from Leith to Shields. After that he made his way to London. He hated life in the metropolis, and after nine months he returned home where he went into a partnership with his former master. The first thirteen years of the partnership saw the publication of more than eighty small books for children, for which Bewick engraved the illustrations. During that time, he completed The Fables of the Late Mr Gay (1779), and produced the Select Fables, printed and published by Saint of Newcastle in 1784. His style began to show ever increasing refinement in design and the handling of light and shade. His national reputation was established by his General History of Quadrupeds, published in 1790. When published, the book met with much praise. Other commercial work stemmed from its success (seven editions were printed, totalling some 14,000 copies).
By summer 1791 the partners embarked on their next enterprise. After six years, the first volume of the History of British Birds was published to even greater acclaim. The principal figures were excellent, but the numerous tailpiece vignettes in the book were also received enthusiastically. Apart from delicate landscape settings, the narrative content of many of Bewick’s tailpieces displays a mordant view of the world and human folly: in a decaying churchyard a crumbling inscription, ‘to the perpetual memory’, is washed by the eroding sea; boys who cannot read lead a blind fiddler past a sign warning of man-traps, etc.
More than 600 blocks had been engraved for the two volumes of the Birds. Two other celebrated books to which Bewick contributed during this period were printed and published in London by William Bulmer. The Poems of Goldsmith and Parnell (1795) and Somervile’s Chase (1796) were produced for the then flourishing market for ‘fine printing’, and their wood engravings were essential to their success. At the end of 1797 the partnership between Bewick and Beilby was brought to an end. Work on the second volume of the Birds became Bewick’s sole responsibility. In 1811 work began on Bewick’s last book, his Fables of Aesop and Others (1818). He had planned the enterprise during convalescence from illness. Though containing many superb engravings, the book never claimed the popularity of the Quadrupeds and Birds. In many ways, the popularity of these books obscured the large number of other books illustrated in his modest workshop. From its inception in 1765 until its demise in 1849, the workshop provided illustrations to books, pamphlets, periodicals and newspapers. The range of prints included natural histories, children’s books, cookery books, religious tracts, spelling manuals, mathematical treatises, Bibles, sermons, local town and county histories, and even joke books. Bewick’s success brought back respectability to the woodcut as a means of illustration and thus to its universal use throughout the nineteenth century. It was no longer confined to the cheap broadsheet.